Baz Luhrmann is a divisive director. His unique blend of pop culture references coupled with highly choreographed, hyperbolic sequences can, for some, prove distracting. Certainly, these criticisms are understandable, if not valid.
Those that claim that Luhrmann’s visions are style over substance are entirely misunderstanding Luhrmann’s aim and purpose. In directing his red carpet trilogy, comprised in Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001), Luhrmann’s mission was clear – he was creating audience participation cinema. Cinema that connected with the audience on an emotional level rather than on a cerebral one. As such, those that criticize Luhrmann’s love of sprawling plots or fast-moving camera shots, are misinterpreting his aim. He is not intending to create subtle, erudite films, but rather, is hoping to entertain his audience.
When Luhrmann’s adaptation of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was announced, the reaction from the purists was derisory. Adopting a perspective of utter elitism, many felt that a populist director such as Luhrmann was not capable of understanding and conveying the intricacies of a canonical piece of literature.
This concept of fidelity in congruency with literature is both tired and dull. No work is guaranteed a place in the literary canon, and to suggest that some texts due to their perceived intellectual weight should be treated in a certain manner during the adaptive process is laughable. A director should, and must, interpret and represent a text as they see fit, and as such, create their own unique vision. This is exactly what Luhrmann has done with The Great Gatsby. The film is entirely his own style and visualization.
Looking at the film again, objectively and isolated from the criticism it garnered at the time, it is immediately apparent that the film was not, and is not, deserving of such a critical mauling. Luhrmann’s film is successfully engaging and heartfelt, and the audience understands the keen sense of loss and desperation that Gatsby experiences. The pacing, while unwieldy at times, is suited to the nature of the narrative as informed through the eyes of Nick Carraway.
Many critics have noted their umbrage with the soundtrack. It’s a bizarre critique with many seemingly suggesting that any piece set in a specific era cannot feature any idiosyncratic notes without losing its purity. Given that this is an approach that Luhrmann has adopted before, most notably in Moulin Rouge, it seems even stranger that it was met with surprise.
For anyone familiar with Fitzgerald’s work, the selection of soundtrack is entirely fitting. As Luhrmann has noted in multiple interviews, his soundtrack selection – emphasizing the bawdy, corrupt and superficial societal figures – was completely purposeful. Recognizing the vital nature of the numerous parties, Luhrmann wisely noted that a soundtrack produced by Jay-Z would prove to be far more relevant, and far more atmospheric than period music.
Thus, the parties, in which little true emotional connection is made and at which Gatsby is able to create his legend, are imbued with vitality and urgency. We can, through the selected music, recognize the manner of these parties. In turn, we are able to identify their frivolity and ultimately recognize the nature of those that Gatsby has surrounded himself with.
In addition to the successful use of music, the film’s strength lies in the almost hyperreal cinematography. Luhrmann uses colour to highlight the affect that Gatsby has upon Carraway. Spending time with Gatsby means that Carraway’s view and perspective is suddenly infused with hope and excitement. Compare these scenes, in which the colour palette is almost lurid, to the palette used in the framing narrative. It is clear to the viewer that Gatsby has had an indelible impact and, intentionally, the film feels lacking without him.
Scenes in which Gatsby and Daisy tour the Gatsby estate are, through the music and visual decisions, imbued with a dreamy quality, and notably feel overwhelming. This sense of garishness is important as it enables us to understand how Daisy, in reuniting with Gatsby, perceives her previous amour.
Luhrmann has a keen understanding of Fitzgerald’s characterization and while his artistic decisions may not suit all, there can be no doubt as to the validity of his interpretations.
That is not to suggest that the film is without faults. The film certainly has its issues, largely in the form of the entirely unnecessary framing narrative. Depicting Nick Carraway as retelling his experience of Gatsby as a form of therapy is clichéd and fairly dull, but this error is not enough to undermine what is, in actuality, an engaging and emotive adaptation.
Too often with adaptation, the viewer is subjectively projecting their own interpretation of the text, and find themselves disappointed with the end visual result. Thus, many of the criticisms of Luhrmann’s film are simply the result of the film being Luhrmann’s vision, rather than their own. Viewing The Great Gatsby as a standalone artwork in isolation from the text, we can appreciate the rich, lush world that Luhrmann has created.
Do you agree? Do you think The Great Gatsby is deserving of further attention?
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Siobhan is a teacher and writer living in Wales, UK. She holds a BA in English and an MA in Film and Television Studies. She is especially interested in depictions of female desire, transitions from youth to adulthood and performative gender. She tweets at @siobhan_denton and writes at https://theblueandthedim.wordpress.com/